Polman: Wait, we're talking about Utah?!
Mike Pence hit the stump in Utah on Wednesday. Yes, Utah.
The Trumpster fire is so out of control that it has now become necessary to waste precious time shoring up a state that has gone overwhelmingly red in every election since 1968.
All because of a guy we'd never heard of two months ago.
Put your hands together for Evan McMullin, who, in addition to becoming the first shaved-head presidential candidate, is a serious threat to deprive the Trump-Pence ticket of six electoral votes that it can ill afford to lose. An ex-CIA counterterrorism officer, ex-House policy aide, and investment banker with a conservative "small government" platform, and a spot on the ballot in 11 states, McMullin is giving his fellow Utah Mormons a potential home on Election Day.
Unlike the spineless Republican leaders in Washington, McMullin is merciless about Trump — and that's a big reason why he's on top in a new Utah poll (at 31 percent; Trump, 27; Hillary Clinton, 24). Stats like that in Utah, on the eve of an election, are unprecedented. Utah's top elected Republicans have all bailed on Trump, essentially signaling to Republican voters that it's OK to back McMullin. Which boosts the odds that he could become the first independent to win a state since segregationist George Wallace scored in the South 48 years ago.
Actually, Trump was in trouble in Utah long before he was outed on tape boasting about sexual assault; long before he was hit with 11 sexual assault accusers. Lest we forget, he lost the state's Republican primary by 55 points. Sixty percent of Utah's voters are Mormon, and they take seriously the church's doctrinal opposition to "any type of unclean or vulgar language and behavior." They're also, on average, highly educated, and we know from crunching the numbers all year that Trump does worst with people who are educated. And as heirs to a persecuted faith, they've long been cool to Trump's attacks on Muslims.
McMullin has no money — reportedly, he had $4,300 in the campaign kitty at September's end — but he does have a message.
"Right now you have a Republican Party that turns away people of different races, turns away people of different religions," he said last Sunday on ABC News, critical of the party's support of Trump. "The vast majority of Republican leaders are putting party ahead of principle and putting party ahead of the interests of their own country."
McMullin is the kind of conventional conservative who has been sidelined this year. He shares a few Trump priorities — repeal Obamacare, buttress the military — but he's pro-path to citizenship and pro-free trade. He appears to be in sync with Trump on cutting regulations and lowering taxes, but, like many other conservatives, he suspects that Trump is a closet liberal who doesn't believe what he espouses. And he's clearly drawing Utah conservatives who view Trump's repugnant racism and sexism as a deal-breaker.
In the end, McMullin himself may be nothing more than a footnote, but his current warnings about the GOP may prove prescient. As the ashes of defeat are sifted, it's quite conceivable that the white nativist Trumpkin wing and the establishment pro-outreach wing could be incompatible.
"It's unlikely that the Republican Party will be able to make the kinds of changes it needs to make after the election. These are generational problems ... but the reality is, the conservative movement doesn't have time for that," McMullin said on Sunday. "If the Republican party can't make the changes, as it wasn't able to do after 2012, the conservative movement will need a new political vehicle ... It may mean a new conservative party."
That GOP crackup could happen regardless of the outcome in Utah. But for now, the state's conservative voters are potentially the point of the spear. Even Trump seems to realize it. At a recent rally he declared "We're leading in North Carolina! (Lie.) We're leading all over the place! (Lie.) Having a tremendous problem in Utah!"
Bingo. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.